Collaboration or Participation? (Week 3 Reflection)

As others have indicated in the Week 3 discussion, our orientation to collaboration relates not only to our photographic practice, but also to our life-experiences, our place in the contexts we are exploring and our personal dispositions. My project, and wider practice, is inherently collaborative, and I view the participants in the work as co-investigators (with all the challenging issues that this brings). Over the course of this module, I have refined the approach I am taking and produced, what I hope is, an achievable design for the FMP. I discussed this with Cemre in the webinar, and she made a helpful suggestion about the use of The Newspaper Club for zine style publication (the broadsheet format is similar to the form used by Simon Roberts in the Election Project).

I have posted numerous examples of collaborative work over the past year in the discussion groups and in my CRJ. In addition to work related to my FMP, collaborative work has included: workshops with postgraduate urban planning students and working in the field with them to explore communities undergoing change; working alongside undergraduate students exploring object based learning with art galleries and museums; collaborative portraiture with community groups in redevelopment areas leading to a pop-up exhibition; the creation of an image bank with a development activist group; engagement with community archives in creation of composite images; mentoring projects using photovoice type approaches with young adult offenders.

Coming from an education and social science background, I share many of the influences cited by Wendy Ewald (Ewald and Gottesman, 2014; Ewald and Luvera, 2013) and in the work on the collaborative turn in photography by Daniel Palmer (2013). In exploring photovoice style approaches (Wang and Burris, 1997; Fitzgibbon and Stengel, 2018) I have come to share the reservations of researchers such as Sinha & Back (2014), who are critical of the tendency of this work to position participants as subjects rather than co-investigators (and recognise the subsequent ethical issues that arise from this). Whilst the distinction made by Chalfen (2011) between projects and studies is useful, I have commented elsewhere on the need to look again at the ethical dimensions of project style work in the light of changing social, cultural and technological circumstances. I have been concerned by the ethical looseness of a number of photographic projects we have discussed (for instance, by Susan Meiselas, in which informal contracts are implied that cannot be honoured, see Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) and about the readiness of some photographers to declare themselves as the (unproblematic) mediators of other peoples ‘stories’ (with the associated dangers of mis-recognition, homogenisation and symbolic violence that this brings; working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and artists recently has further heightened my awareness of this). It’s not that motives and commitments are being questioned here, nor that we should cease doing this kind of work, but that there are difficult ethical , epistemological and ontological issues to be addressed, which may, indeed, enrich the work that we do, for instance, in understanding and engaging with the knowledges of indigenous people (see, for instance, Pascoe, 2014), and locally and globally contextualising cultural, economic and political struggles.

Why am I tending towards collaborative photographic work whilst many others are more introspective in their approach? In part this is to do with my familiarity with and commitment to social and educational change, and my confidence in working in these settings. It is also to do with my general disposition to and interest in social interaction – I like being with, interacting with and learning about other people and their lifeworlds; in my social research this has led me to interview-based and participant observational forms of research, rather than the survey and the archive. It also has to do with my relationship with photography, which started in front of the camera as a child model, and as James has observed, these commercial settings are by necessity team efforts, with a complex division of labour and requiring participants to work together (though this is, of course, not always achieved in practice). Photography for me has always been a collaborative, collective and public activity.

In terms of the focus of this part of the course, it leads me not to deeper consideration of participatory and collaborative approaches (that is ongoing anyway in the development of my project), but rather to explore the potential of more introspective (and reflexive) forms of practice. It has also deepened my commitment to exploring, in a rigorous way, what is distinctive about photographic, and more broadly visual arts and arts more generally, approaches in advancing our understanding, and how this can enrich truly interdisciplinary exploration of the complex and pressing challenges that face us locally and globally.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Ewald, W. and Gottesman, E. 2014. We’re Talking about Life and Culture, Aperture, Issue 214, Spring 2014, 86–93.

Ewald, W. and Luvera, A. 2013. Tools for Sharing: Wendy Ewald in Conversation with Anthony Luvera, Photovoice, 20, 48–59.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Palmer, D. 2013. A collaborative turn in contemporary photography? Photographies, 6(1), 117–125.

Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu. Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Wang, C. and Burris, M. A. (1997) ‘Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment’, Health Education & Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 24(3), 369–387.